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Taking a tilt at history

Julia Gillard and Barack Obama share courageous parallels of purpose.

Julia Gillard and Barack Obama share courageous parallels of purpose.

FROM where I sit, with the Capitol dome outside my office window, Australia looks great. Here, unemployment is high, economic growth is low, deficits and debts have robbed growth options for today and tomorrow, the longest wars in American history continue, and in Washington very little is getting done. The anguished fight over the debt limit, with the coda of the August crash and sovereign debt downgrade, is but the latest example of how the titans in Washington clash and produce but a shadow of real change. President Barack Obama retains the audacity of hope and summons us to greatness, but the winds of change are stalled.

In Australia, unemployment is very low, the deficit is modest and declining and debt is not a structural worry, engagement with the world across all continents is robust, and the horizon has promise. In the US, the haunting issue is America sliding and in decline. In Australia, the challenge is to manage booming, differentiated growth. Obama would kill for Australia's economy.

Here, there is malaise in the nation. After two years of the most extraordinary legislative achievements since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933-34, Obama is caught in the backwash of an economy that is simply not growing fast enough to provide jobs and stability. There is a poison in US politics of campaigns that never end, of the most bitter partisanship, of a hard-scrabble populism that wants to stop the world and get off, fed by a profound sense that the country is moving in the wrong direction. The mission of the opposition is the political assassination of the leader in office. His poll standings are plumbing new lows.

Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan and is now a columnist with The Wall Street Journal, was characteristically blunt late last month: ''The secret of Mr Obama is that he isn't really very good at politics, and he isn't good at politics because he doesn't really get people ? He was good at summoning hope, but he's not good at directing it and turning it into something concrete that answers a broad public desire ? He is not a devil, an alien, a socialist. He is a loser. And this is America, where nobody loves a loser.''

Sound familiar? It is not a civil time, or a happy one. Fear has replaced hope, and retribution is the reward for achievement.

In the US, the painful recovery explains Obama's quagmire: anaemic growth, the August crash, declining retirement savings and unemployment above 9 per cent overshadow the vast progressive agenda of saving the economy, healthcare reform, Wall Street regulation, education innovation, and investments in clean energy. Imagine if the economic recovery program of nearly $800 billion in February 2009 had done a better job. Yes, depression was averted. But wealth has not been restored to Main Street.

In Australia, there is something deeper than the carbon tax (or refugees, or live cattle exports) that has corroded Julia Gillard's standing. The attacks on her go well beyond the issues of the day. The media coverage of her leadership reveals an obsession, a frenzy, at times an orgy, of rant and vilification. It is the woman being played. But underlying all of this is, I believe, a profound sense of dissatisfaction and disquiet with the election result of a year ago: that the outcome was unnatural and perverse, that a mutant was created, and that the sooner it is put out of existence the better off the polity will be.

Perhaps not. Australia last had a minority government in 1941, and it muddled through something a little bit bigger than a carbon tax - namely, World War II. Its leader, John Curtin, was elected in 1943. But very few who remember it or lived through it are still with us, and today's political culture is unfamiliar with it. (The closest parallel in the US was right after Watergate, in 1974-76, when both the serving president and vice-president were not elected to the offices they held. It was all constitutional, and legal, but it did not sit right in the national psyche.)

President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard, even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of deathly politics, share another parallel. Universal access to affordable health insurance is Obama's greatest legacy. It will be in the first line of his obituary, after the fact that he was the first African American elected President.

But health insurance reform took 15 months to become law, and the daily attention to it consumed everything else. In Australia, the carbon tax legislation had taken on the same political characteristic for Gillard. It has had a very long gestation that has drowned out virtually everything else on a day-to-day basis.

Healthcare reform was enacted into law by the narrowest of margins in 2010. Half the country supports it, the other half still opposes it. But if Obama is re-elected it will stick and it will be ingrained in the delivery of health services, joining Medicare as one of the blessed bedrock programs in US life.

By the time the next election is held in Australia, the carbon tax, assuming its enactment this year, will probably be on a similar footing. If it endures, it will be seen as the fulcrum of the re-engineering of the Australian economy into a post-carbon competitive dynamo.

For Obama and Gillard, these huge reforms are acts of great courage - precisely because they are difficult, precisely because they are so unpopular at the outset, and precisely because the political price paid is extraordinarily high.

Yes, there is a hell of a lot of treacherous anger out there. But there is history to be made, too.

Bruce Wolpe, a former executive with Fairfax Media, is senior adviser to Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, in Washington. He became an Australian citizen in 2010.

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